Margaret at first astonished and repelled us by a complacency that seemed the most assured since the days of Scaliger. She spoke, in the quietest manner, of the girls she had formed, the young men who owed everything to her, the fine companions she had long ago exhausted. In the coolest way, she said to her friends, ‘I now know all the people worth knowing in America, and I find no intellect comparable to my own.’ In vain, on one occasion, I professed my reverence for a youth of genius, and my curiosity in his future—’O no, she was intimate with his mind,’ and I ‘spoiled him, by overrating him.’ Meantime, we knew that she neither had seen, nor would see, his subtle superiorities.
I have heard, that from the beginning of her life, she idealized herself as a sovereign. She told — she early saw herself to be intellectually superior to those around her, and that for years she dwelt upon the idea, until she believed that she was not her parents’ child, but an European princess confided to their care. She remembered, that, when a little girl, she was walking one day under the apple trees with such an air and step, that her father pointed her out to her sister, saying, Incedit regina. And her letters sometimes convey these exultations, as the following, which was written to a lady, and which contained Margaret’s translation of Goethe’s 66 “Prometheus.”
1838.—Which of us has not felt the questionings expressed in this bold fragment? Does it not seem, were we gods, or could steal their fire, we would make men not only happier, but free,—glorious? Yes, my life is strange; thine is strange. We are, we shall be, in this life, mutilated beings, but there is in my bosom a faith, that I shall see the reason; a glory, that I can endure to be so imperfect; and a feeling, ever elastic, that fate and time shall have the shame and the blame, if I am mutilated. I will do all I can,—and, if one cannot succeed, there is a beauty in martyrdom.
Your letters are excellent. I did not mean to check your writing, only I thought that you might wish a confidence that I must anticipate with a protest. But I take my natural position always: and the more I see, the more I feel that it is regal. Without throne, sceptre, or guards, still a queen.
It is certain that Margaret occasionally let slip, with all the innocence imaginable, some phrase betraying the presence of a rather mountainous me, in a way to surprise those who knew her good sense. She could say, as if she were stating a scientific fact, in enumerating the merits of somebody, ‘He appreciates me.’ There was something of hereditary organization in this, and something of unfavorable circumstance in the fact, that she had in early life no companion, and few afterwards, in her finer studies; but there was also an ebullient sense of power, which she felt to be in her, which as yet had found no right channels. I remember she once said to me, what I heard as a mere statement of fact, and nowise as unbecoming, that ‘no man gave such invitation to her mind as to tempt her to a full expression; that she felt a power to enrich her thought with such wealth and variety of embellishment as would, no doubt, be tedious to such as she conversed with.’
Her impatience she expressed as she could. ‘I feel within myself,’ she said, ‘an immense force, but I cannot bring it out. It may sound like a joke, but I do feel something corresponding to that tale of the Destinies falling in love with Hermes.’
In her journal, in the summer of 1844, she writes:—Mrs. Ware talked with me about education,—wilful education,—in which she is trying to get interested. I talk with a Goethean moderation on this subject, which rather surprises her and —,who are nearer the entrance of the studio. I am really old on this subject. In near eight years’ experience, I have learned as much as others would in eighty, from my great talent at explanation, tact in the use of means, and immediate and invariable power over the minds of my pupils. My wish has been, to purify my own conscience, when near them; give clear views of the aims of this life; show them where the magazines of knowledge lie; and leave the rest to themselves and the Spirit, who must teach and help them to self-impulse. I told Mrs. W. it was much if we did not injure them; if they were passing the time in a way that was not bad, so that good influences have a chance. Perhaps people in general must expect greater outward results, or they would feel no interest.’
Again: ‘With the intellect I always have, always shall, overcome; but that is not the half of the work. The life, the life! O, my God! shall the life never be sweet?’
I have inquired diligently of those who saw her often, and in different companies, concerning her habitual tone, and something like this is the report:—In conversation, Margaret seldom, except as a special grace, admitted others upon an equal ground with herself. She was exceedingly tender, when she pleased to be, and most cherishing in her influence; but to elicit this tenderness, it was necessary to submit first to her personally. When a person was overwhelmed by her, and answered not a word, except, “Margaret, be merciful to me, a sinner,” then her love and tenderness would come like a seraph’s, and often an acknowledgment that she had been too harsh, and even a craving for pardon, with a humility,—which, perhaps, she had caught from the other. But her instinct was not humility,—that was always an afterthought.
This arrogant tone of her conversation, if it came to be the subject of comment, of course, she defended, and with such broad good nature, and on grounds of simple truth, as were not easy to set aside. She quoted from Manzoni’s Carmagnola, the lines:—
Piu altamente di me pensi ch’io stesso.”
“God forbid that any one should conceive more highly of me than I myself.” Meantime, the tone of her journals is humble, tearful, religious, and rises easily into prayer.
I am obliged to an ingenious correspondent for the substance of the following account of this idiosyncrasy:—
Margaret was one of the few persons who looked upon life as an art, and every person not merely as an artist, but as a work of art. She looked upon herself as a living statue, which should always stand on a polished pedestal, with right accessories, and under the most fitting lights. She would have been glad to have everybody so live and act. She was annoyed when they did not, and when they did not regard her from the point of view which alone did justice to her. No one could be more lenient in her judgments of those whom she saw to be living in this light. Their faults were to be held as “the disproportions of the ungrown giant.” But the faults of persons who were unjustified by this ideal, were odious. Unhappily, her constitutional self- esteem some times blinded the eyes that should have seen that an idea lay at the bottom of some lives which she did not quite so readily comprehend as beauty; that truth had other manifestations than those which engaged her natural sympathies; that sometimes the soul illuminated only the smallest arc—of a circle so large that it was lost in the clouds of another world.
This apology reminds me of a little speech once made to her, at his own house, by Dr. Channing, who held her in the highest regard: “Miss Fuller, when I consider that you are and have all that Miss — has so long wished for, and that you scorn her, and that she still admires you, I think her place in heaven will be very high.”
But qualities of this kind can only be truly described by the impression they make on the bystander; and it is certain that her friends excused in her, because she had a right to it, a tone which they would have reckoned intolerable in any other. Many years since, one of her earliest and fastest friends quoted Spenser’s sonnet as accurately descriptive of Margaret:—
In finding fault with her too portly pride;
The thing which I do most in her admire
Is of the world unworthy most envied.
For, in those lofty looks is close implied
Scorn of base things, disdain of foul dishonor,
Threatening rash eyes which gaze on her so wide
That loosely they ne dare to look upon her:
Such pride is praise, such portliness is honor,
That boldened innocence bears in her eyes;
And her fair countenance, like a goodly banner,
Spreads in defiance of all enemies.
Was never in this world aught worthy tried,
Without a spark of some self -pleasing pride.”
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